BEIJING (Reuters) - The heir apparent to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il arrived in China on Friday, South Korean media reported, saying Kim Jong-un was travelling by train to court the isolated North’s sole major economic and diplomatic ally.
Neither Beijing nor Pyongyang has said whether Kim Jong-un is visiting, and both sides are habitually secretive about such trips. Here are some facts about their ties.
Communist China was a key backer of North Korean Communist forces in the Korean War, and sent soldiers across the border into Korea from October 1950. China continued to support North Korea following the armistice, and in 1961 the two signed a treaty which calls for either to aid the other if attacked. It remains in force, but its potential application is ambiguous.
After China’s rapprochement with the West and then its establishment of formal diplomatic ties with South Korea in 1992, ties between Beijing and Pyongyang frayed.
But Beijing still sees North Korea as a strategic buffer against the U.S. and its regional allies. In recent years, China has sought to shore up relations with the North with increased aid and trade and many visits there by leaders.
Tensions spiked on the peninsula last year. In March, Seoul said Pyongyang was undoubtedly to blame for sinking a South Korean navy ship, killing 46 sailors. The North denies sinking the vessel.
Then in November, North Korea shelled a South Korean island near disputed waters on the west coast of the Korean peninsula, killing four people and sparking another crisis.
During both confrontations China did not publicly criticise North Korea, and instead urged restraint from all sides. Beijing also chided the United States for holding joint military exercises with South Korea in seas across from China’s coast.
China has pressed North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons, and the issue has previously produced cracks in their relationship.
In October 2006, North Korea held its first nuclear test explosion, defying public pleas from China. Beijing condemned the test and supported a U.N. Security Council resolution that authorised sanctions against North Korea. It backed more sanctions following the North’s second test in May 2009.
China has sought to defuse confrontation by hosting six-party nuclear disarmament talks since August 2003. The now-stalled negotiations bring together North and South Korea, China, the United States, Japan and Russia.
North Korea has in recent months drawn back from its earlier renunciation of the talks and said it wants to rejoin negotiations over international aid in exchange for nuclear disarmament. But there are no plans for their resumption.
Beijing has urged the United States, Seoul and their regional allies to be more flexible in negotiating with North Korea so the six-way talks can resume.
China’s trade and aid are crucial to North Korea’s survival. In 2010, trade between China and North Korea was worth $3.5 billion (2.1 billion pounds), up 29.6 percent from 2009, according to Chinese customs statistics. China’s imports from North Korea in 2010 grew by 50.6 percent to $1.2 billion, and its exports to North Korea grew 20.8 percent to $2.3 billion.
In 2010, China’s bilateral trade with South Korea was worth $207.2 billion, according to Chinese statistics.
North Korea has dramatically increased its economic cooperation with China over the past two years to surmount international sanctions imposed for its nuclear and missile tests in 2009 and growing estrangement from South Korea.
South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper has reported that China and North Korea will soon launch two joint development projects on their border.
A construction project to develop an island called Hwanggumpyong in the lower reaches of the Tumen River starts on May 28, and construction of roads connecting Hunchun in China and Rajin-Sonbong in North Korea on May 30, the paper said.
China’s 1,415-km border with North Korea includes stretches of rivers that freeze over in winter, and in past years many North Korean refugees have crossed over, sometimes then making their way to other countries and then South Korea.
Outside groups have earlier estimated their numbers to be from tens of thousands to 300,000. Beijing worries that economic collapse or political turmoil in North Korea could unleash a surge of refugees into China.
Tighter security and fences along the border have made it more difficult for North Koreans to flee into China.
(Sources: Reuters; International Crisis Group; Andrew Scobell, “China and North Korea: From Comrades-in-Arms to Allies at Arm’s Length”; U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea; Congressional Research Service, “China-North Korea Relations”)
Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Jeremy Laurence and Sanjeev Miglani